by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
Hushpuppies are a heart attack on a plate, but so worth it.
While going to school in central North Carolina, some friends and I would often trek to the coast to get some surf fishing in. One of the best places we visited was Calabash, at the very southeastern tip of the state. It's a small fishing town that prides itself as the "Seafood Capital of the World." And you can't have a plate of seafood without their famous hush puppies that are elongated rather than round.
The actual origin of the hushpuppy is shrouded in several myths, some that seem plausible and some just plain silly. From throwing bits of food at dogs to hush them ... to Cajuns frying up salamanders so low on the culinary scale that others were told "hush up" about it. The truth is that hushpuppies, in their ancestral form, were being made long before the term was applied to them, which in turn was even older than the hushpuppies themselves. Both evolved separately and only later were joined together.
First, the history of the fried bread. The most famous was "Red Horse Bread" that was made by Romey Govens, a former slave who, after the Civil War, settled on the banks of the Edisto River SC and began hosting fish frys. "Red Horse Bread" was his concoction of cornmeal, water, salt, and egg, dropped by spoonfuls in the hot lard—named for a local Red Horse species of fish.
Visitors to these fish Frys were soon scribbling down the recipe and southerners everywhere began making similar tasty balls of fried cornmeal batter, though they didn't call them hushpuppies. They were "wampus" in Florida, and "red devils" and "three finger bread" in Georgia.
The term itself began in England of the 1700s. Corrupt British officials, when ordered to search a vessel suspected of smuggling, played the game of Hush-Puppy, delaying several hours before conducting their search, giving the crew time to hide the contraband ... all for greasing their palms of course. The term came to mean any kind of coverup and after coming to America, was even used by a newspaper at the time of the Teapot Dome scandal, noting the Harding administration's "hush-puppy methods of permitting this scandal to breed and flourish."
The term was actually first applied to a kind of gravy called pot liquor, and that's where keeping the puppies quiet may have come in. In 1915, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Senator H. H. Casteel of Mississippi saying that "pot-liquor in his section was known as hush-puppy because it kept the 'houn' dawgs' from growling." It seems unlikely they would give good-tasting gravy to the dogs. More likely it was simply a euphemism for stopping the dogs in your stomach from growling—a stomach cover-up if you will.
From there, it begun to be applied to a wide range of things, even shoes. The inventor of Hush Puppy shoes thought it the perfect name for a casual shoe, which would "quiet your barking dogs." In 1948, Walter Thompson packaged the dried ingredients for deep-fried cornbread with the instructions to just add water. Thompson named his company "The Hushpuppy Company of America." So while it may have been in use prior to this, it was now set in stone. Red Horse Bread had become a hushpuppy.
There are several restaurants in Calabash, so its hard to pin down just one. But the distinctive thing about Calabash hushpuppies is not necessarily their recipe (though they are mighty tasty), but their elongated shape. Of course, if you'd like to make the original Red Horse Bread, add 1/2 cup of finely chopped green pepper.
1 cup buttermilk*
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tbsp all-purpose flour**
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 cup green onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp garlic powder
*You can substitute whole milk, but ... why would you?
**You can substitute self-rising flour, but it so, remove the baking soda from the recipe and reduce the salt (see "What is Self-Rising Flour" in the appendix).
Preheat oil in deep fryer or cast-iron skillet to 350-375˚F.
Stir all dry ingredients together. Make a well and add egg and 3/4 cup of buttermilk. Stir thoroughly. Add 1/4 cup more of buttermilk if needed (mixture cannot be too runny to have any type of consistency in the oil).
Add green onions; mix well. Drop into hot oil for 3-4 minutes or until brown. Drain on absorbent paper.
To make the long shape, you can pipe the batter into the oil using a pastry bag or a cookie press. Or if you prefer to make them round, just drop them into the oil by spoonfuls. In either case, always watch out for splatter when working this close to hot oil.
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